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A Northern Affair

It’s fascinating how different, yet similar each region of Europe can be. Last year, I boarded an SNCF train from Charles de Gaulle airport to Lille, the capital of the Hauts-de-France (the northernmost region of France near the Belgian border). The drive to my hotel, past quaint buildings, reminded me of my brief visit to Brussels.

In Europe, a city’s culture is heavily influenced by the weather and its neighboring countries. Since Lille shares the border with Belgium, there’s a notable Flemish influence in all its aspects – from weather, food and architecture to culture.

I checked into the charming Hotel L’Arbre Voyageur located in Boulevard Carnot, close to the city center.  The property takes pride in its quaint décor – Baroque touches, avian patterns and bold colors.

After a quick nap and coffee, I headed down to reception where a red vintage Citroën 2CV was waiting for me. I had signed up for a driving tour of this Belgian-French part of Europe in a classic car that can be booked on (a one hour guided tour in a convertible 2CV for one person is priced at €67/$78).

My tour guide drove us through the narrow byways of Lille lined with little houses dating back to the 17th century. Most of these golden sandstone buildings built in the neo-Flemish style of architecture have now been converted into boutiques and cafes, creating an idyllic ambience that blends the old with the new.

One of the most notable buildings is L’Hospice Comtesse, once a 13th century charitable hospital that is now a museum with a collection of paintings, tapestries, wood sculptures and porcelains from the region.

My old school 2CV drove through Lille’s alleys, towards the Grand Place – the mid-point of the city and the Grand Square. It’s dotted with gabled edifices and the Chamber of Commerce that boasts a 250-foot-high belfry – a symbol of the city’s commerce.

While Lille is small in size, it impresses aficionados of architecture and history with its striking structures such as the Lille Palace of Fine Arts (a municipal museum dedicated to the arts) and the neoclassical Opera House of Lille. Designed by the architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier, its grand facade incorporates elements from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, culture and art.

Bon Appétit

After the tour, I’d worked up an appetite so I headed to Le Barbue, an estaminet (small café in French that serves food and drink) close to the town square. Actually, most places in Lille are in relatively close proximity to each other.

Given its more northerly locale in a relatively colder region and considering its Belgian nuances, the diet in Lille is heavily dependent on meat and fish. The menu in this dimly lit, wooden estaminet included beef tartare, pork ribs and salmon fillet. I chose a fillet of plaice – a flatfish – served with egg and mustard sauce. The restaurant’s specialty is Flemish carbonade flamande, a traditional Belgian sweet-sour beef stew prepared with beer.

Speaking of beer, another interesting facet of Lille is its love for it. While the rest of France is known for exceptional wine, Lille prides itself on its beer (just like Belgium). Its microbreweries date back before World War I when families began investing in the business of beer. Post-war rationing of daily supplies heavily reduced the number of breweries.

However, a few survive in this part of French Flanders. I visited one such microbrewery called Célestin where I met a fifth generation member of the family that began the business in 1740. Here you can find more than 400 different regional and international beers and also their in-house La Dix Biére Blonde. Some of the other beers on the list here are Ch’ti (a person from north France is called Ch’ti) and Vedett (a Belgian beer but widely available in Lille).

While touring the city, I ran across an pastry shop called Meert. Its mannerist-style front with arabesques medallions stood out, beckoning me to visit; I could not resist. I learned that this patisserie was founded in 1761 and is known for its waffles layered with Madagascar vanilla.

The waffles’ recipe has stayed the same since its creation and is known to have caught the fancy of many a French luminary including Charles de Gaulle – a Lille resident – who continued to order the treat even after he moved to Paris during his presidency. I enjoyed jasmine tea alongside these famous waffles and a rich chocolate pastry, as I sat in the pastry shop’s tea room decorated with chandeliers and black and white portraits of dignitaries.

Hitting the Beach

After spending the night in Lille, the next day I drove through Boulogne-sur-Mer (the city of Boulogne) to Le Touquet-Paris-Plage. As the name suggests, this “beach of Paris” serves as the playground for affluent Parisians who come over for weekend breaks and vacations.

This community is less than a three-hour drive from the French capital and is lined with extravagant properties that are much adored by their regular visitors. I was staying at the art deco Hôtel Barrière Le Westminster which reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie with its old school elevator, artwork and the very English lobby bar.

Later I rushed to Le Touquet Golf Course where reservations for lunch had been made at its restaurant called Spoon. Overlooking the golf course, I enjoyed an elaborate three-course lunch in the company of fellow Parisians and travelers who were likely visiting for a round or two of golf. I began my meal with marinated salmon, remoulade celery and green apple and followed it with a fillet of salmon, smoked sausage and red wine jus.

During lunch, I decided that to experience Le Touquet like a true Parisian, I must hit the beach later – even though the temperatures were still low. It turned out to be quite an adventure as I tried my hand at an alternative sport called sand yachting.

Since many travelers visit this town during cooler months, there are a few winter activities like this one that have been set up on the beach. While sand yachting looked simple, it was definitely not a piece of cake. Maneuvering a sail pushes a wheeled vehicle ahead without engine power. Driving over sea shells with the wind blowing in my face and occasionally feeling splashes of salty water was quite thrilling. A windy day is essential for this activity because after a point my yacht refused to move in the still air.

Next morning, with a jam-packed schedule, I left rather early to drive 40 miles to the medieval seaside city by the Bay of Somme – Saint-Valery. A fisherman’s town until as late as the 1980s, Saint-Valery is one of the most charming places I have visited in France. It is modest and not very commercial, but its colors, rich history and quaintness are most appealing.

A walk through its maritime quarter – also known as Le Courtgain – with old homes of fishermen and their families was an exquisite experience. Houses are painted in vivid colors and fresh flowers decorate most of the porches. People are friendly and their warmth captivated me, even though language was a barrier.  

Many of the facades reveal the naval heritage of the town with evocative paintings and flags. Each house differs proudly from its neighbor in design, shades and shape, making the entire town of Saint-Valery seem like a colorful, whimsical odyssey.

Walking upwards on its winding alleys brought me to a cliff side entrance to the city’s old wall. It is from here that I soaked in panoramic views of the Bay of Somme. Saint-Valery has been through a tumultuous past, serving as a landing point for Celts, Romans and Vikings, as well as the hiding place for Saint Joan of Arc when she was a prisoner of the English.

Religious wars in the 16th century damaged the fortifications, yet still today its remnants make it an interesting place for history buffs. That’s all there is to this small town. In the evening, I took a walk on its seaside promenade before driving to my next destination – Amiens.

Elegant Dénouement

Picardy is a historic region of northern France, stretching from the suburbs of Paris and vineyards of Champagne to the beaches of the Bay of Somme on the English Channel.  Amiens is the capital, a 50-minute drive from Saint-Valery. Amiens already gave me a feel of a much bigger city than those I had visited – but it still exudes the charm of a small town.

This could be attributed to a few things; the fact that it’s mostly pedestrianized and that it’s lush with greenery almost everywhere. There are several canals that crisscross areas of the city populated with residences, cafés and universities (Amiens is a student town as well because of the number of colleges here).

A fascinating way to begin your trip in Amiens is by visiting the iconic Floating Gardens or Hortillonnages. Once a market garden, leeks, cabbages and carrots used to be grown here. Now a popular tourist spot, these small floating islands built on reclaimed marshland are dotted with flora and jointly span almost 750 acres between the Avre and Somme rivers.

I opted for a boat tour (€6/$7) that lasted 45 minutes as I sailed through the winding canal. Ducks, swans and other waterfowl swam beside us, and plants with flowers of brilliant colors outlined this boat ride. Some islands had camping homes and residences and others were plots used for gardening purposes. The canals effortlessly transported me into a wonderland of nature and serenity.

After this rendezvous with nature, I walked through the city to its most significant point – the Amiens Cathedral. An admirer of architecture, I can never get enough of the structures in Europe – and was excited to learn that in fact Amiens is the largest Gothic cathedral in France. The exterior of Notre Dame d’Amiens looked to me to be remarkably similar to its namesake in Paris. It is notable for its two unequal towers, medieval wall paintings inside and Gothic sculptures that adorn the west facade.

Larger-than-life sculptures of kings – 22 of them – stand in the lower gallery. Every evening from June 15 to the third Sunday in September, the sculptures on the west facade are illuminated for a striking light show. The cathedral was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1981.

My visit to these contrasting destinations in northern France made for an interesting few days. Each place stood out because of its distinctive characteristics.  The exciting news is that there is much is left to do for another northern affair in this exotic region – part of France that impressed me with its unconventional elegance.